Not all growls are alike to dogs, especially “My Bone” growls, according to a new study published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

While humans might not know the meaning, dogs clearly hear different meanings, according to the research which provides the first experimental indication that domestic dogs rely on context-dependent signals during specific encounters. The findings add to a growing body of evidence showing animal calls are more complex than originally thought.


Recorded growls of 20 adult dogs in three different social contexts – play, protecting a bone from another dog, and reacting to a threatening stranger – were captured using a tape recorder. Food growls had a stronger effect than growls recorded in playing or threatening context.

The researchers placed a freshly cooked, meaty and juicy large calf bone in a bowl. All of the study dogs found the bone irresistible. But as the test subject dogs approached the bone, the researchers played back the previously recorded growls through a hidden speaker. The hungry canines only jumped when the bone-guarding growl was played, even though the threatening stranger-associated growl sounded just as menacing to human ears. Computer analysis also did not find any differences between the stranger and food growls, but the dogs knew the differences.

(By Woof Magazine, republished with permission)